ESSAY

Lust in Translation

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By Jim Benning
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 9, 2006

I've always considered my hotel rooms to be refuges -- places where, no matter how foreign the culture around me, I could retreat and unwind, free from the challenges and confusion of the outside world. That was particularly true in China.

I'd arrived with only a few words of Chinese at my disposal: "hello," "thank you" and, as a result of an ill-fated attempt at a community college Mandarin course, "I like to eat rice." While I had little trouble procuring a bland, starchy lunch, other tasks, such as asking for directions or buying a train ticket, often evolved into exhausting games of charades. The language barrier felt as insurmountable as the Great Wall, and at the end of each day, my well of patience having run dry, I would escape to the safe confines of my hotel room.

That's exactly where my wife, Leslie, and I wound up, beat, after exploring the northern city of Xian late one afternoon. So when the telephone suddenly rang, intruding upon our sanctum, I was in no hurry to answer it.

None of our friends knew where we were. Not a soul at the hotel's front desk spoke English. And I had no interest in proclaiming, yet again, my great love of rice.

I considered ignoring the phone, but when the caller didn't relent after nearly half a dozen rings, I flopped down on the bed and picked it up.

"Ni hao," I said.

A woman at the other end uttered something in Chinese, her voice rising in a way that suggested a question.

"I'm sorry, but I don't speak Mandarin," I replied in English, assuming that would put a quick end to it.

As I was about to hang up, she said something else, this time exhaling between words, as though she were pedaling an exercise bike.

"What's that?" She offered a few more words in a warm, soft voice and then breathed into the phone, this time in a way that evoked not a sweaty gymnasium but a romantic, candlelit bedroom. I had no idea what she was saying, but I liked the way she was saying it.

Leslie, standing across the room, shot me a quizzical look. I pulled the receiver away from my lips and whispered, "I think it's a prostitute, but I'm not sure. She doesn't speak any English." Leslie shook her head, then wished me a good time and disappeared into the shower.

I remembered reading something about Chinese prostitutes occasionally calling hotel rooms to seduce potential clients, but I'd never received such a call myself.


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